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'Mad Men' recap: 'Every man for himself'

May 14, 2012 | 11:19 am

Betty Megan Mad Men

“Dark Shadows” is an episode of “Mad Men” that is deceptive in its simplicity: Because nothing terribly dramatic happens, it’s easy to overlook just what a complex and meticulously plotted hour of television it really is. While it’s fairly obvious that this episode is all about rivalries — Betty versus Megan, Peggy and Don versus Ginsberg, Roger versus Pete — what’s really impressive about “Dark Shadows” is how these seemingly isolated feuds feed off one another, creating a toxic web of resentment and jealousy. Series creator Matthew Weiner has a habit of crafting lines of dialogue that point to broader thematic concerns. Last season, there was Henry’s warning to Betty: “There is no fresh start”; this time around, as Weiner himself suggested in an interview just before the season premiere, it’s Roger who acts as a sage when he tells Peggy, “It’s every man for himself.”

At the risk of being pelted with rotten tomatoes, I must say I’m thrilled to have Betty back. While she’s far from the most sympathetic character on “Mad Men,” Betty is, I think, a vital part of the series. I strenuously object to the idea, espoused by many fans, that Betty is somehow superfluous because she’s no longer married to Don. As the quintessential Unhappy Housewife, she represents millions of women of her era. But more specifically, she also still has has a very potent effect on her children and, by extension, her ex-husband and his new wife. To quote Megan, Betty is still capable of poisoning them from 50 miles away, which means she's still very much a part of the "Mad Men" story.

Since we last saw her, Betty has adopted a strict diet routine and managed to shed a few pounds. She’s even gained a modicum of self-awareness, which, for Betty, represents an enormous step forward. Her weekly Weight Watchers meetings have done more to boost Betty’s emotional intelligence than her various stints in therapy, and she’s conscious, in a way that we’ve never seen before, of the link between her unhappiness and her various bad habits.

But just as Betty appears to be evolving, she reverts to her favorite form of emotional release — the spiteful act of sabotage. (Her second-favorite: surreptitious mouthfuls of canned whipped cream.) It’s something we’ve seen time and time again from Betty, first when she orchestrated an affair between Arthur and Sara Beth, and more recently when she fired Carla out of misdirected anger toward Glen. This time around, though, it’s Sally who becomes a pawn in her mother’s juvenile act of vengeance.

Betty Sally Mad Men
It all begins with an awkward encounter between Megan and Betty, one that, it’s worth nothing, only occurs because Don is determined to come up with a better Sno-Ball pitch than Ginsberg.  (See what I mean about the ripple effect of jealousy in this episode?) If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time Betty and Megan have met under these circumstances — that is, as the former and the current Mrs. Don Draper. Understandably, it does not go very well. Betty, in a move that’s at once extremely aggressive and deeply insecure, wanders uninvited into Don and Megan’s apartment. She gazes in awe at the chic furnishings then — dagger through the heart! — happens upon the lithe, lovely Megan as she is getting dressed. Betty is jealous, but there’s also a sense of loss animating her feelings. Note that Megan and Betty are both framed by windows, as if Betty is looking backward at her past self, or maybe even forward, to what might have been had she stayed with Don.

At her Weight Watchers meeting later that week, Betty explains the situation in veiled-yet-specific terms. “I had a bad week out there after having a good week in here,” she says. “I was in an unfamiliar place and I saw and felt a lot of things I wish I hadn’t.” It’s a triumphant moment for Betty: She’s lost a half a pound and, even more critically, she’s gained some much needed insight into her emotional life.  (And it’s also a great scene for January Jones.)

One of the reasons I find Betty so fascinating is that she has an uncanny knack for squandering whatever sympathy the audience might feel for her. While sorting through Bobby’s schoolwork, she stumbles on a lovey-dovey note from Don to Megan, written on the back of a drawing of dying whale (symbolism, much?). She instinctively lashes out, telling Sally to ask Megan about Anna. Even for Betty, it’s an incredibly low blow, and yet it’s not that hard to understand her hurt feelings. Megan gets a fabulous lifestyle and an open, honest and loving marriage; all Betty got was three kids, a house in Ossining and a decade of lies.  Not to mention, Sally probably should learn about Anna at some point. The curious thing, though, about Betty’s bitterness is that she’s actually somewhat happy with Henry. Why, then, all the fuss over her philandering ex-husband? Betty sums it up perfectly when, over her meager little Thanksgiving plate, she says, “I'm thankful I have everything I want. And that nobody has anything better.”

Credit goes to Megan for not taking the bait, even though Sally turns on her with the terrible, swift cruelty characteristic of adolescent girls. She knows that Betty is only trying to meddle with their marriage, to prove that she still has the power to inflict damage on Don’s life, and so she wisely tells Don not to fight back. Instead, Don tells Sally an abridged version of the truth: Anna was a friend who helped him out when he needed it.

It’s not the whole story, but it’s a step toward transparency. Overhearing Megan and Don’s conversation, Sally also learns an important truth about her mother’s capacity for manipulation. What worries me is that Sally appears to have inherited this trait. Rather than simply telling Betty that Megan and Don told her about Anna, Sally twists the knife by acting like it was all no big deal.  “They spoke very fondly of her,” she says with calculated nonchalance. She even claims that Don showed her pictures of Anna — which, as far as we know, did not happen. Like mother, like daughter?

This episode is rife with similar acts of petty sabotage. Post-acid trip, Roger is less angry than he used to be, but not necessarily any more enlightened. In his attempt to woo Manischewitz wine, Roger, the ultimate WASP, turns to Jane and Ginsberg, the two Jews in his life, for help. He’s willing to pay them both off — Ginsberg with cash and Jane with a new apartment — all for the satisfaction of sticking it to Pete.

But like Betty, Roger can’t quite handle the idea of anyone else having the spouse he rejected. Over dinner, he notices Jane’s attraction to the Rosenbergs’ handsome son, and he retaliates by seducing his estranged wife at the brand-new apartment she bought for the sole purpose of escaping bad memories of their marriage. He even marks his territory by using her toothbrush. Just like Betty’s apartment-snooping, it’s an act of  subconscious aggression. He might as well have scrawled “Roger was here” on the bathroom wall.

Roger’s feud with Pete also foments another rivalry at the office. Even with Megan and Ginsberg nipping at her heels professionally, Peggy has maintained a brave façade of confidence all season long, but now it’s finally beginning to crumble.  For the first time, maybe, she feels that her position is under threat, and so she confronts Roger about Ginsberg. He fires back with the line of the episode, “It’s every man for himself.” Indeed it is. Even Don, the guy once capable of reducing a room full of hardened executives to tears with a few family slides and some sentimental copy, feels insecure about his creative skills. He, too, “pulls a Betty” – i.e. he resorts to a transparent act of sabotage by accidentally on purpose leaving Ginsberg’s board in the cab. Luckily for Don, Sno-Ball likes his corny Devil ad, but clearly we are meant to wonder whether this genius has, finally, lost his touch.

With only four episodes remaining this season — I know, I know, it’s painful — the question now is how far can this “every man for himself” theme go?

Stray thoughts:

— This episode comes the same weekend that Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” premiered in theaters, which seems like really, really clever product placement, but I have to think is actually just an enormous coincidence.

— Another interesting rivalry in this episode is the one between Megan and her friend Julia. Julia’s resentful of her friend passing judgment “from her throne on 73rd and Park,” while Megan wishes she’d get cast in anything, even something as hokey as “Dark Shadows.”

— And let’s not forget the barb Jane directs at “Joanie,” “She’s a professional something.” Meow!

— Speaking of which, one unfortunate side effect of Megan’s prevalence this season is that we haven’t gotten nearly enough Joan. I’m dying for a good Joan-Roger episode. Next week, maybe?

— If you’re interested, here’s a piece about the smog alluded to in this episode, and here’s a link to the actual New York Times story about advertising — written by the legendary Victor Navasky.

— Betty’s Thanksgiving plate — a single Brussels sprout and a thimble-full of gravy — looks like a holiday meal at the Cratchit household. Weight Watchers must have been really stringent back in the ‘60s.

 — The Pete-Beth storyline is sort of boring me. Pete has always been an interesting character to me, an entitled white guy who could occasionally surprise you with his decency. Now he’s become insufferable — and borderline psycho. 

— From the Department of Overthinking It: Betty turns to Reddi-Wip in a moment of weakness, not Cool Whip. What does it all mean? (Probably nothing.)

— The entire scene between Roger and Ginsberg is a thing of genius, from Ginsberg’s horrible murder joke to Roger’s casual anti-Semitism (e.g. “It has to be cheap — surprise” and “Bring me a couple of your best by sundown on Friday”).

— Ginsberg, with his cringe-inducing jokes, is quickly becoming the David Brent of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I mean that in the best possible way.

— The toxic smog reminds me of "The Virgin Suicides," the second time this season "Mad Men" has made me think of Sofia Coppola's movie. (The first time was that lovely, dreamy sequence of Sally waking up in the season premiere.)


Critic's Notebook: Of "Mad Men" and a long-lost Beatles cartoon

"Mad Men" recap: A little something on the side

 "Mad Men" recap: A night with the grown-ups

— Meredith Blake

Photo: Megan and Betty share an awkward encounter (top); Sally tells Betty what she's learned about Anna (bottom)

Credit: Jordin Althaus / AMC